April 2007 Interview: Nikki Giovanni

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Nikki Giovanni is a world-renowned poet, professor and activist. She has written over two dozen books, including children’s books and volumes of poetry. She’s put out 9 albums and has more awards and honorary degrees than I can count. Not only is this woman legendary poet and brilliant Blackademic, but she is down to earth. With “Thug Life” tattooed on her arm to honor Tupac, she is just as political today as she was as a leader of the Black Arts movement. Nikki Giovanni.

Pierce Freelon:
Welcome to Blackademics.

Nikki Giovanni:

Thank you.

Here’s my first question. You’ve got the children’s book about Rosa Parks’ experience. I was wondering if you were familiar with Aaron McGruder and if you had seen the Boondocks episode that he did about Martin Luther King, which included Rosa Parks and how you felt about that? First if you were aware of it, and second what you thought about it.

I am of course aware of Aaron because, I’m aware. He’s in the Washington Post and he’s an NAACP image award winner, so I’m aware of that. I have a lot of the Boondocks books; I don’t read them every day because I don’t read the post everyday. But I get his collection, he’s got maybe two or three of them. So obviously, I missed that one I think it was controversial. I don’t remember now, why.

It’s actually… He’s got the show now, because he has the comic strip that comes out in the newspaper but he’s got his show The Boondocks, so I guess you haven’t seen the show.

Oh no, there’s no way I would see the show because he has to close the show before the joke can be done. The thing that makes The Boondocks work to me is its immediacy. So if I’m reading something I immediately know, ‘oh, that’s in reference to…” but the show closes way early, way above that and it hasn’t captured my attention because I don’t do cartoons and it’s out of date.

Okay, well I would love to run home and get you the DVD of the first season of The Boondocks, because it’s really interesting stuff, thought provoking.

I’m sorry I missed it,

That’s cool. So you talked about women’s role in our history. You had a really interesting and powerful quote mentioning Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman. You said, “Women plant the seeds of revolution” and I know you’re an inspiration to a lot of young women out there and I was wondering if you could talk about some of the women who inspire you and why.

Well, what I actually said, is a little different, is that “women carry the seeds of revolution.” So if you’re creating a slave situation, you would almost never bring women. And if we look at Slavery for example, we look at the Greeks and the Romans, right? It was always men. They never brought any women. Because women carry the seeds of the revolution, right? And if you have the men by themselves, then you can do what the French did with the Blackfeet, which is breed them out. So the French, in order to get rid of the Algerians, right, Made a law that said you can’t marry anybody darker than yourself. Which is to say, that you can’t have sex with anybody darker than yourself. So you simply breed the men out.

But women are always going to have what they have. And I think the Montgomery Bus Boycott is important because we generally credit Martin-and as I said, I think Martin’s a great man I have no problem with that-but it was started by a great woman. And I was very enchanted that the country recognized her greatness. She’s the only person that we’ve ever had to honor who didn’t have a gun or a knife or the power to kill anybody. Because everybody else that lies in State did. All she had was a belief in herself. And we recognize the forgotten woman of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is Dr. Joanne Robinson because she was the head of the woman’s political caucus. And they ran off those posters. She made a decision about what action should be taken and they did that. The boycott-it’s just a question of putting the history in perspective-the boycott was in effect when we finally meet Martin. And as we know, many of the preachers were just absolutely unkind. Martin and Ralph were pretty stand-up on that one, but a lot of the other people didn’t come through. So it was important that the people… It was not an organization from the top down, it was from the bottom up. The people had made up a decision that they were tired.

Everybody that loves freedom loves Harriet Tubman because she was determined not only to be free, but to make free as many people as she could. They credit her for 300 slaves, which means it’s probably way more than that, but since everybody always cuts your numbers down. Of course there’s no way not to love Harriet Tubman. But in the modern world, we were talking earlier-I am a honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta which I’m very proud to be and I’m not saying it because I’m a member of Delta. But I look at great and inspiring women like Lillian Benbow our former president, or Jeanne Noble. And not the next book-at least I don’t think it’s the next book if everything goes right-but the book after that, that I’m working on is to tell the story of Jeanne Noble and Daisy Bates because it’s a story that a lot of people just don’t know. And one of the things we know is that storytelling is how history is passed. It’s what our ancestors did, it’s what everybody’s done. It has to come back into a story because otherwise, it’s stuck in this book and it’s boring and it’s academic and I’m not against intelligence and I’m not against education, I don’t want to be misunderstood, but we have tell the stories to our young people a little bit early and history gives us a lot of things.

The book I’m actually working on right now is the friendship-because it was-between Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, because we look at Lincoln, and you know it’s just like Lincoln woke up one morning, scratched his balls and said, “I think I’ll free the slaves.” (laughter) It went nothing like that. No, Nothing like that. And whatever else you think when you see the Lincoln memorial-which is a beautiful thing-Frederick Douglass should be in the back of him, leaning over Lincoln’s shoulder helping him sign that emancipation. Fred Douglass had so much to do with making Lincoln who he is. Including that beard, including a lot of things. And it’s very hard because these are cultural wars that we are in. And it’s difficult to explain that to people my age, let along people your age. Because everybody says the truth is out-the truth ain’t out unless somebody fights for it. But when you look at Douglass’ input into the Lincoln administration. Lincoln would have been a different man without Douglass, totally different.

So my book starts with John Brown and that’s the fight we’re having right now and probably I’m going to lose the story. It won’t come out the way I want because you win some, you lose some, and you become a writer and you have to roll those punches and you have to get the story told some other way. But my story opens right there with John Brown. And Abraham Lincoln is asking-they’re at dinner-and Lincoln is asking Douglass, did he know John Brown. John Brown has been hanged, it was a week after John Brown was hanged. And of course Douglass did know John Brown because when John Brown was fleeing Ohio from killing the slave chasers-which he did, thank God-he killed them but then he needed to leave, right? So he went to Pennsylvania-well you kill people, you need to get out of the way-and so he went to Pennsylvania and he stayed with Frederick Douglass. And while he was there, he and his sons were there resting, he was trying to recruit Douglass. Douglass knew that Harpers Ferry was fools gold, he knew that that would never, ever work.

Douglass was a visionary, but he was a very practical man. But he was a good friend of a woman who nobody knows named Mary Ellen Pleasant, Mary Pleasant. And history has tried to make Mary Pleasant into some kind of prostitute. She was a woman who escaped slavery in Maryland, went all the way to San Francisco-this is the 49ers now-she was washing their clothes and ironing. She’s a Black woman, right? So how’s she going to do it? She washed and ironed and she started cooking. She’s saving her pennies, she bought a house, then she had a rooming house, she was did very well. She was one of the people that bankrolled John Brown. And actually, Mary Pleasant was one her way to join, she was a believer-and that would be a whole other story-she was on her way to join John Brown because she thought it could work. And she got stopped in Cincinnati as she was coming through-thank God-because if she hadn’t been stopped she would have been hanged with the rest of them. And they turned her back around. But the history of Mary Pleasant-because America has made Mary Pleasant into something dirty-but when you read the history, you start to get into the stories there. And so people like me have to do it because I’m not going to live forever. We have to keep telling the stories so that somebody will tell the stories, there’s some great stories out there.


So, quick question, when you say Frederick Douglass had something to do… are you saying he got him to get the beard?

Yeah he did, Abraham Lincoln looked like John Brown. They’re both lanky white boys, you can go see pictures of John Brown, see pictures of Lincoln, that’s fact. Douglass says to Lincoln at some point-and so it’s my story so it’s my timeline now. You have to do that. You tell a story, you have put it in.. so it didn’t have to happen in the timeline but this is what did happen-so Douglass said to him, “you know Mr. Lincoln, you need to grow a beard.” We’ve never had a president that had facial hair and we don’t now. Lincoln says, “I’ll never get elected with facial hair” and Douglass says, “you’ll never get elected looking like John Brown” because this is not instant communication. Lincoln says, “well, how would I explain it” And again now, I have Douglass saying this because if that’s not the way it worked, that’s the way it should have worked. I have him saying-because he had a farm in Amish country, the Amish wear beards-he said, “I’ll get one of the kids to write you a letter and suggest it.”

Now what we do know is that when Abraham Lincoln grew his beard and the reporters said, why have you grown it, he produced a letter from at 12-year-old girl, that said, Mr. Lincoln, your face would look much letter. We know that, everybody agrees on that. My thing is, why the hell would some 12-year old girl in Amish country write Abraham Lincoln, right? You have to ask yourself. And if you put Douglass’ farm where it was, you know that he did that. You know that that’s exactly how that went down. And so it’s these kind of things that you want to come back, when you’re dealing with the history of it, you have to keep saying, wow, I wonder how that happened, I wonder how that happened. But you can do that. You can go look at him you’ll see what it is. He could never have run for president looking like he did because the people that would see him would think of John Brown. They considered John Brown a terrorist. Of course, the fact that he struck a blow against slavery-any other person that struck a blow, Patrick Henry. I live in Virginia and so everybody loves Patrick Henry, “give me liberty or give me death.” When John Brown does the same thing, it’s like “oh no.” It’s not liberty when it’s Black people. It’s only liberty when it’s white people. You get tired of that.

This concludes part one of the Blackademics interview with Nikki Giovanni. Part two, coming soon.

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